Am I Unhappy or Depressed?

A psychiatrist I once worked for drew a strong line between unhappiness and depression. Many people are unhappy he would say, but that doesn’t mean they are depressed. In my clinic, both depressed and unhappy people will tell me that what they want most is to feel happy again. Without professional training in mental health, it can be hard to know the difference.

So how can you tell if you are unhappy or depressed? Perhaps unsurprisingly there is some overlap in what you experience, but there are also key differences.


Words abound to describe unhappiness in the dictionary. Words such as sad, miserable, sorrowful, dejected, despondent, down, joyless, and even depressed. Feeling unhappy can be temporary or it can be a more chronic state. It is normal to feel unhappy after a relationship break-up, job loss or death of a loved one. Although our culture promotes positivity and happiness as the norm and possibly even a requirement of success, being a human means you have a range of core emotional needs and will experience a range of emotional states in any day. It is ok to feel unhappy, bored or discontent some of the time. If you are persistently or even chronically unhappy it is time to look at what you can do to change this.

Unhappiness can be maintained and even lead to depression if you change your daily habits significantly when you feel unhappy. Chronic unhappiness can also be contributed to by unhelpful beliefs such as that life is hard, that you have no control over your life, that others are to blame and believing the worst is likely to happen. In my work as a therapist I often find these beliefs are linked to schemas such as the negativity/ pessimism schema, the failure to achieve schema the mistrust/ abuse schema and the vulnerability to harm schema.


Although feeling unhappy is something depressed people often identify with,  you will likely experience accompanying feelings of flatness, emptiness or numbness. A diagnosable depression is more than just a feeling state and marked changes in your physical states such as sleep changes, appetite changes and decreased energy levels together with mental changes such as decreased concentration and memory problems must be present.

When you’re depressed, things you normally enjoy are hard to enjoy and you find you lack the motivation to do your normal routine.  Similarly to unhappy people, unhelpful thinking styles play a role and as do excessive self-criticism and guilt. People with depression often have a strong inner critic and research has found often have painful schemas such as the abandonment schema, defectiveness/ shame, the failure to achieve schema, emotional deprivation, and the subjugation schema. Due to the experience of emotional pain, when you are depressed you are prone to suicidal thoughts and may believe that you are a burden to others and that your loved ones would be better off without you. Persistent or intense suicidal ideation must be taken seriously, and are a sign that you need support.

It’s important to note that if you are depressed you may not have all of these symptoms at once but will likely have a combination. These changes must be present for more than two weeks for you to be diagnosed with depression.

If you have had depression more than once in your life, schema therapy may help. Schema therapy address unmet needs of childhood and helps us to build a Healthy Adult part that helps prevent relapses of depression.

What can you do if you are unhappy or depressed?

If your unhappiness has occurred as the result of a life event it is likely temporary. Nurture yourself and avoid changing too many of your daily habits during this period. Avoid spending too much time alone and make sure you do something each day that is pleasant or gives you a sense of achievement. If your unhappiness is chronic, in that it has persisted for a month or more then you may need professional help you shift your unhappiness.

If you’re concerned that you’re depressed it is important to see your doctor or psychologist for support. Counselling treatments for depression such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), are effective and can be used alone or in conjunction with antidepressant medication. For recurrent depression approaches such as schema therapy that are effective to recover and also prevent further relapses.

Antidepressant medication targets brain chemistry changes caused or contributing to your depression. Antidepressants do not assist you to resolve current problems that are contributing to your depression or teach you the skills you need to change your life to prevent depression in the future in the way that CBT or schema therapy can.

Nobody wants to feel unhappy or depressed but both can be your teacher. They are communicating that there is a need in your life or something that needs to be addressed. Whether you are unhappy or depressed, I encourage you to take action and find a way through your difficulties. You are worth it.

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About Nadene van der Linden

Nadene van der Linden is a clinical psychologist in private practice. Nadene has a special interest in trauma and uses active therapy approaches including schema therapy, EMDR, and chairwork therapy techniques. Nadene is a Board Approved Supervisor and supervises and mentors psychologists and other mental health therapists.
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